Those Little Orange Books

Image result for bobbs merrill biographies

First edition of one in the biography series which appealed to boys and girls.

I often had my nose in a book after the third grade, and usually it was a biography.  Stories about famous people which centered on them when they were my age fascinated me.  I read what they said, what they did, what their families were like and how their way of life differed from mine.  There were over 200 in this series; all were published in the 1940s and 50s by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis.

Image result for bobbs merrill biographies

The covers morphed into blue by the time I checked them out in grade school.

Reading one after another before we studied American History in school, I found that Martha (Patsy) Dandridge and Abigail Smith grew up to be important figures in the colonies. Children who would be leaders on the frontier often had poor childhoods but close families.  The little biographies are classified by some as fiction, because they contain conversation that we don’t know happened, but might have.  The events which the talking evolves around really did, though.  And we were smart enough at the time to realize nobody had an electronic device to record what was said.  Even if they did, who knew the kids would turn out to be key figures of our past?

I just reread Teddy Roosevelt, All-Round Boy, publication date 1953.  From years of doing research about our 26th president, I find most of it to be correct.  Many facts are drawn from TR’s autobiography written in 1913.

I was fortunate to find an old library book in good condition which previewed my current collection of Theodore Roosevelt biographies.

Someone is checking up on the vintage books and issuing revised copies.  Florrie Binford Kichler, who formed Patria Press in 1997 (Bobbs-Merrill was acquired by Howard Sams and then Macmillan in 1985), had read many of the books in her own childhood.  She said she’d had rheumatic fever when she was eight, which required bed rest for three months. “My face lit up every time Aunt Mary came to visit with an orange biography.”  Her first was about Mary Todd.

Silhouetted drawings interpreted events in each subject’s life.  I know from spending time in the Houghton Library at Harvard that this amusing incident took place.  Theodore Roosevelt, and his friend, Freddy Osborn, tipped their hats to the wife of the US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish.  They forgot that the frogs they had been collecting were in the hats.

Baby Boomers also recall the faceless illustrations on the inside pages.  They resemble scherenschnitte, or paper cutting, which was popular in the early American colonies.  Very different than today’s Who Was… series which plop on the covers a post-modern-looking giant head and shrunken body of the subject.  They, of course, are starkly accurate and leave little to the imagination.  I always liked to think I was there in the chapters of the Bobbs-Merrill ones.  It felt like I could have been in the same room or yard or school, watching and listening.

How about it?  Were you interested in those little orange books?  If so, did it lead to a lifelong love of history?  I’d be interested to hear your story.


22 Replies to “Those Little Orange Books”

  1. Those were my favorite books to check out of the library when I was a child in the 60’s. I am now in my 60’s and totally fascinated with American history. I would LOVE to find these books again to reread!!!


  2. I loved the books! My “library” was a bookmobile. My children’s literature professor in College was the authors of several of those “orange” biographies. The books inspired me to think about doing something special “when I grow up”. I have ended up teaching children’s lit at a major university. Those books will always be in my memory. The first one I read was “Martha Washington”, and I remember the first sentence in the book: “The Dandridges had company”.


  3. On the first date I had with my lovely wife, we discovered that we both had read the “little orange books” as kids. I would take my book out of the library, go across the street and read it on the steps of a building in Hyde Park Square, Cincinnati. One thing lead to another and now we have been married 61 years. On that first, famous dinner date we both remembered that we would check the shelf in the library for the new titles which were brighter orange. I am professor emeritus of Brooklyn College in history.


    1. How special, James! I taught fifth grade for 25 years and always recommended that my students read biographies, because that is how I remember history,, by connecting the people to their times. Congratulations on your anniversary – my husband and I will celebrate our fiftieth next year!


  4. I read and re-read those blue covered bios when I was in grade school. Many years later, I am the author of three grown-up bios. I credit this series with fueling that interest.


      1. The Little Orange books were an important part of my childhood library, and I still have them today. Unfortunately many, particularly the ones of southern heroes, don’t age so well. I am writing a piece on my southern heritage which has become a bit of a millstone, and remembered that it had been Robert E. Lee: Boy of Old Virginia but could not remember what Stonewall Jackson had been the Boy Of. I just tried to look it up (which is how I found this blog). The series has been totally rewritten, which makes sense, and of course Stonewall Jackson is gone, which also makes sense. But does anyone remember what the full title of the Stonewall Jackson little orange book was? we used to make a game out of how many we could recite: Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl for example!


  5. I gobbled them up when I was a student at Berkeley Institute in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in the early 1960’s, and remember that even when the covers turned blue, we still called them the Orange Books.

    I’ll turn 70 in a few days. I’m a biographer now, and my fourth book (and third biography), of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, will be published by the University Press of Kentucky this September. So I write Orange Books now, but for adults. I see I’m not the only one in this thread who has become a de facto Orange Book writer..


  6. They lined the shelves of our classrooms in 3rd & 4th grade. I think I read every one before I got to 5th grade, & although I realize the books were largely fictionalized, they included enough accurate information to help me answer questions on Jeopardy that even some of those genius contestants miss.


  7. These were like candy when I was in grade school! I gobbled up books about Jane Adams, Dorothea Dix, Jim Thorpe, and many others, most of which I never heard of during later history classes. Glad to see others enjoyed them, too.


    1. I have found some of these used biographies on Amazon. They can be pricey. Half Price Books may also be a source, but each store has different inventories. Good luck!


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